Early in my ministry, I encountered some who misunderstood what I was preaching. I was quick to grasp the idea of speaking clearly and precisely to avoid misunderstanding, but there was another factor I had yet to consider. While talking about the matter with a wise, older gentleman, he commented on the obligation of listeners, saying people are responsible to “hear accurately.” This intrigued me.
While it is certainly true that speakers have a responsibility to speak accurately, it is equally true that hearers have a responsibility to hear accurately. Writers have an even more pronounced need for clarity. An author cannot write merely to be understood but must take pains not to be misunderstood. Clarity is the responsibility of the author. But again, sincere readers are obliged to read accurately, to catch not only an author’s words at a given point but also the context of those words.
Responding to a speaker or author, going beyond what was actually discussed, and then weighing in on a “phantom matter” amounts to more than a disregard for the hearer’s obligation. Inaccurately reporting the facts and commenting on things never mentioned is bringing false accusation. Taking another step, irresponsible hearers may casually assign labels to men and ministries that often misrepresent the truth. Due to such actions, there can be so much prejudice against someone that many hearers/readers may be predisposed to grossly mishear or misread.
I remember a time when an individual made me out to have written something incredibly bizarre. It was laughable, yet sad. I asked him what kind of prejudice did it take to read someone who is clearly within the bounds of orthodoxy (even if you disagree with him theologically) and make him out to say something ridiculously and bizarrely unorthodox. The response I received was hardly satisfying.
It seems the issue is that when one disagrees with another in some way, one may fall prey to mishearing or misreading in an attempt to find a “handle” to discredit the party. It is paramount that speakers and authors speak and write clearly, but hearers and readers, likewise, must accept the obligation to accurately listen and read.
John Van Gelderen